Religion(s), the Self, and The Other


In my Buddhism class section today there we talked a lot about how different aspects of Buddhism relate to destroying the self in order to eliminate suffering. Roughly, the thinking goes, the reason that people suffer is because they desire things. Desire is egocentric in that its based on telling yourself that if only such and such were to happen, you would be happy. However, Buddhists would say, if you meditate and watch yourself form your desires — rather than just taking them as a given — you’ll find that they no longer really seem coherent or compelling, and that most of the times the things that you “want” have nothing to do with what it is that you actually seem to be trying to get.

For instance, let’s say that someone is interested in buying some dieting book. They tell themselves that once they lose weight, they’ll be so much happier, because then they’ll be more attractive and they’ll be able to get in a steady relationship and people will like them more and they can fit into cooler clothes and they’ll have friends and so on and so forth.

The person in that example doesn’t seem particularly interested in diets. Mostly they seem to just want to have friends and relationships.

(I remember a really depressing comment I heard someone say in San Francisco, about how products that actually work won’t be as successful, because the actual reason that people buy things is to fill narrative holes in their life so that they can tell themselves that they’re trying to make things better, and that if they were to buy something and have it actually do what it’s supposed to, then they would need to face the problem that that they were wrong about it fixing everything — that if the person in the example were to actually lose weight, then rather having the problem of “I need to lose weight”, they now have the problem of “I don’t have any friends, and its not even because I’m fat!”, and that this state of knowledge would be much much worse for them emotionally than their ignorance, and that most discretionary consumer products are in fact just packaged hope, and the ability to maintain the illusion of whatever story it is that you’re telling yourself about what you’re doing.)

Hopefully after reading the above, you’re now sufficiently despondent for the next point, that the Self as a narrative center of gravity describing your trajectory through life is a thing that can be eliminated, and that this is a separate question from achieving goals.

If you’re like me, reading the example you might think that the problem there isn’t that the person has desires, but that they are mistaken about them, and that if they reflected more about the question, they would be able to notice that they care more about having friends than they do about losing weight, and then they could just try to make friends, rather than doing silly diet stuff.

I think that that’s a basically reasonable response, but I also think that the Buddhists are correct to say that if you actually take the time to pick through and take apart the process whereby you try to force all of your life into a coherent-seeming thread of thought, and instead just pay attention to the relationships between the things that are happening around you, without declaring that it is imperative that some thing goes one way or another, then you’ll also stop suffering.

Buddhism has a lot of psychological insight into how to do that, and I think that they’re mostly right about most of what they say. However, I’m not really that interested in trying to be entirely Buddhist. I think they’re right about most of the practical details of their theory, but I think that their theory is mostly about doing something that I’m not very interested in.

I have a lot of issues with that.

In particular, not-suffering seems like a kind of boring goal to me. I’m already pretty happy, and it seems like if I were to succeed then I’d sort of have a lot of time left over after I was done. Also, I care about people, and being a perfectly not-suffering being seems like I might be maybe nicer to the people around me, but not do anything particularly difficult to make things better.

Mahayana Buddhism tries to get around this by having the goal of trying to enlighten all beings, and then going on to say that even though one could meditate on hunger and pain, it’s really just much easier/more efficient/more expedient in most cases to feed people first, because becoming Enlightened is just much easier when you’re mostly well fed.

So I started thinking about how other religions go about dealing with this problem, without eliminating the self.

In a similar way that Buddhism develops psychological techniques for eliminating the feeling of suffering, I think that Christianity has pretty good techniques for eliminating Guilt, which can also be viewed through a mostly cognitive lens. Where Buddhism focuses on dissolving the self through examining the inter-relatedness of different perceptions (and seeing that the self is less unitary then you think), Christianity seems to focus on redeeming yourself through a personal relationship between your self and a kind of Generalized Other.

What do I mean by that?

When I say Generalized Other, I mean a sort of prototypical model of what another person might know, and how they might judge you that your brain creates for the purposes of understanding specific other people.

This Generalized Other would know witness everything you’ve experienced, and have as much access to your motives as you do. As such, it can judge you based on every true argument that someone could make about your actions, and so is a relatively reasonable perspective to adopt in order to attempt to form moral judgments about yourself. It also makes representing other people’s judgments about you more convenient, since everyone else’s observations of you are just the G.O.’s observations minus information.

Christianity provides a mechanism for freeing yourself of Guilt and Shame based on your relationship with this G.O.. For apologizing to specific people, it seems to work well to just confess your wrongdoings, repent, and try to make amends. Sometimes, however, that’s impractical. So what Christianity does is it gives you a cultural institution for being able to repent to your own internal G.O. (a process by which you try to see what could make a generalized person forgive you), and then encourage your actual attempts at repentance. If you have a prototypical model of a person that other specific people are just extensions of, then if the G.O. can forgive you, then your brain would conclude that specific other people can forgive you to, and further that they should.

This seems really effective at helping people deal with Guilt and Shame, without needing to sacrifice their selves/narrative centers of gravity. As such, it seems (at least to me) to be a firmer foundation for an agentic worldview.

There are two major problems though.

One is that God doesn’t exist. Both in the sense that there isn’t a guy who created the world and is interested in each and every one of our well-beings, but also in the sense that the G.O. is a pretty bad model of other people’s judgments of you.

For one, the G.O. is based on what you pay attention to about yourself, and not what other people notice about you. Even after that, people still have different judgments than you. The G.O. is a really good model when other people have the same G.O.s, which can happen when people have some sort of morality that they think everybody else follows, and have that moral system constantly reinforced in their minds as something universal and important, but there’s not too much of that left in modern culture.

For me, this makes the phrase “God is dead” a lot more scary. There is no universally accepted standard to which you can be held accountable. You can try really hard and do everything right and there can still be people who hate, disagree with, and resist you, and there’s nothing that you can appeal to that they have to listen to.

I can think of a couple of hacks around this problem. You could try to model a bunch of different G.O.s corresponding to different values/subcultures (modernized polytheism), or try to be praiseworthy for doing things that actually everybody likes like feeding people or preventing disease (Effective Altruism),  you could try to please every specific person (neuroticism), or you could just give up on the whole thing entirely (egocentrism).

The other problem is deeper.

Even if you did have a G.O., it still seems to me that the Christian morality/worldview is kind of hollow. Basically, the upshot is that you try to be nice to people so that you can go to heaven. Why is heaven good? Because it’s really nice there. There’s also a bunch of different things about creating the kingdom of heaven on Earth and imitating Jesus and whatnot, but that still seems to ultimately boil down to “Don’t be a jerk, because if you weren’t then things would be better”. Heaven is never depicted as having particularly awesome, but it’s nice because there aren’t any assholes there.

I know I should be nice to people. I even like being nice to people. I’m not a jerk.

But what do I do besides that?